This is the first time in many years when I haven’t felt a horrible sense of dread about Father’s Day.
My father expected to be honored and acknowledged on Father’s Day, but I quit doing that a long time ago, because I decided I couldn’t continue to be that dishonest. Instead, the day became an annual reminder of the tension between the praise he wanted and the reality of what I needed to say to him.
When I kept trying to get him to talk with me about the past — and how he treated me in that present — he used to get angry and say, “Nobody gives me any credit for all the things I did for you children.”
That wasn’t true, but when you need to get someone to look at the abuse he’s inflicted on you (and continues to inflict), you’re in no mood to recount anything good about him. Now that he’s dead — and no longer stalking me online and showing up at my door unannounced — I can finally allow myself to look at his positive side once again.
My father was a monster. I’ve shared some examples of that over the last couple of months. But he could also be a decent, loving and caring man. The problem is that I never knew which side of him I was going to get.
When I was young, he had me convinced that he was perfect. It was a childhood version of Stockholm Syndrome. I depended on him so much that I couldn’t afford to recognize what he was doing to us. He was all I knew — and I accepted that he was right about everything.
Because of that, I thought he was a great father for a long time.
It wasn’t until my mid to late 20s when I started feeling uneasy enough — and had enough distance from him — to start seeing the truth. My youngest sister first suggested that we had been through an abusive childhood, but I wouldn’t hear anything of it. I angrily rejected her thoughts about it. She and I have disagreed about many things over the years, but on this point, she saw the scary parts far before I did.
When I was 25, I published a personal column for Father’s Day in the newspaper where I was managing editor at the time. I praised what my father had done for us and I painted a very complimentary picture of him. I still have a copy of that article, but I can’t bring myself to read it anymore. I’ve let a few people read it over the years, just to illustrate how far I had to come to understand what he had done to us, but for years it’s angered me that I ever praised him for anything.
As long as he was alive — and constantly showing that he had no respect for his children or healthy boundaries — it was hard for me to talk anymore about his good. I was too angry with him and it was already hard to get other people to understand why I would have cut off contact with my own father. Most people weren’t willing to understand, so I concentrated on explaining the abuse so they might understand — and so they wouldn’t judge me.
Now that he’s gone, it’s different.
I can now remember good times that I would have angrily ignored not long ago. It doesn’t change any of the abuse, but it fleshes out a picture of someone who was mentally ill rather than evil.
I appreciate that he insisted I learn proper grammar from an early age. As soon as we could speak, he insisted that we speak correctly. His methods could be extreme at times, but I can appreciate the fact that I always knew how to speak and write clearly. Every English class I ever had was a breeze, because I grew up being taught to use language correctly and to express myself clearly.
I appreciate that he taught us practical skills that I see missing in a lot of children. Far earlier than other kids, I could count money and make correct change and tell time. He taught me the basics of algebra when I was in about third grade, so math classes always seemed easy until I hit calculus.
I appreciate that he taught me how to be socially proper with strangers. From an early age, I could dress properly for an occasion and I could walk into any room with confidence — under pretty much any circumstances — and I could have conversations with adults that made them think I was a man in a little boy suit. Even when I didn’t want to be nice or polite, I knew how to act with others under pretty much any circumstances. That skill continues to serve me well.
I appreciate the way he taught me about sex. When I was in the second grade, I started thinking about my mother’s euphemistic response when my sisters and I had asked her where babies came from. She said it was when a man and woman loved each other and were with each other. As we washed dishes — as a family — one Sunday afternoon, I asked him why unmarried people didn’t get pregnant if a man and woman just had to be with one another. Later that afternoon, he had a very thorough conversation with me to explain sex and its relationship to love and marriage. As a result, I was never shy or embarrassed about sex. It was never presented to me as anything shameful, so I never saw it that way.
I appreciate that he left a good career — with a high-paying job — to stay home with us full time after he and Mother divorced. Until then, we had had a live-in housekeeper. He decided that if our mother wasn’t ever coming back, he needed to be home with us all the time. He first went back to teaching and then to a series of other jobs in which he struggled — all because he gave up a lot of money to do what he thought was right for us.
I appreciate the fact that he wanted to help other people. Even though I later found out that the money he used to help was embezzled money, he gave away a lot of money. He helped individuals in trouble and he gave money to things he thought mattered. He didn’t want public credit for what he gave. After he gave our church a large sum of money to buy many books for the church library, he was only upset about one thing. He had specified that nobody know who the money came from, but the church had put the standard stickers on the books saying whose donations paid for them. He insisted the stickers be removed. He honestly didn’t want anyone to think he was doing that for public thanks.
I appreciate that he was willing to help me about 12 years ago when I made a short film. I didn’t have time during production to be the daily bookkeeper paying everything that had to be paid, so I gave him the money and he doled it out according to my instructions every day. He never really understood my desire to create art, but he did understand accounting.
My father was a complicated man. He was a monster. He was also a kind and loving person. Ultimately, he was a man who suffered from narcissistic personality disorder and managed to push away everyone who wanted to love him.
I regret that he would never allow us to have a balanced relationship with him. I regret that he was so unable to overcome the malignant narcissism in him that he couldn’t get the help he needed — help which might have enabled him to find a healthy relationship with children who were more than willing to love him — and with others in his life who loved him until his lies and dysfunction ran them away.
The photo above is the last picture I ever took of him. About a month before I cut ties with him, I met him at the Apple Store in Birmingham so he could look at an iPad and I could explain it to him. I have no idea what possessed me to shoot this — because I never took random pictures of him — but I pulled out my iPhone and quietly shot one photo. He was about 78 or 79 at the time.
At least for now, this is the picture I have in my mind of him — a complex man who was overcome by demons that developed in his own home as a child. Now that he’s dead, I hope I’ll be able to see him in a balanced light for the first time in my life. I have no desire to whitewash the ways in which he abused us — or the ways in which he hurt other people — but I can finally afford not to be angry with him all the time.
I will not be the kind of father he was. When I was young, I was afraid to have children, because I feared I might be too much like him. It’s taken me many years of learning and self-improvement to know that I won’t be like him. I hope that when I have my own children, though, I’ll be able to avoid his mistakes while emulating certain things he got right.
I don’t wish he were still here for me to see him or talk with him on Father’s Day. I don’t regret cutting ties to that toxic relationship. I am completely at peace that I made the right decisions about him.
But for the first time in decades, I can finally think about the good and the bad in him — acknowledging the truth of both — and wish his spirit a happy Father’s Day.